Joseph Mendoes - cello expert

How to achieve the best tone on the cello.

Practical tips to achieve a great tone on the cello

In this video, Prof. Mendoes gives you practical and easy-to-understand tips to achieve a great tone on the cello.

Released on July 2, 2014

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DISCLAIMER: The views and the opinions expressed in this video are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Virtual Sheet Music and its employees.

Video Transcription

Hello this is Joseph Mendoes with another video for Today I'd like to talk about, well, in general, sound. But in particular how to create a really, really great cello tone. Now tone, or sound, or whatever you want to call it, is something I think that for the cellist, especially, is very important. Obviously, to be a great violinist, or a great violist, or a great bassist, or any other instrument, you need to have a great tone but really, cello, when people think about the cello, they think, "Oh, it's a beautiful instrument, it has beauty. There's so much beauty in the sound and richness." So if you're a cellist and you don't have this, I think you're making your life pretty difficult and I think the tone is something that needs to be worked on.

Now, there is a lot of things that go into a really, really good cello tone. But the first thing I'd actually like to start with is actually not the thing you think would be obvious that I would start with which is the right hand. I want to start with the left hand. Really to have a great sound, first thing is you have to make sure the string is getting all the way down. Now I talked about this in, I think, my bravado video and maybe in a different video as well. But, really, the string has to be all the way down and the best test for this is Pizzicato. If you pluck a note ... sorry not an open string, if you pluck a note with the finger down, even without a bravado, there'd be no bravado, you'd hear there's a nice ring. Now if that string isn't all the way down, you'd get a thud.

So this is something you have to be careful of because in a Pizzicato it's very obvious when this is happening. But when you're playing with the bow, it's a little bit different. For example, I'll first play a sound, I think is a pretty good sound, with the string all the way down. Now I'll play one without the string all the way down. So there I'm just kind of pushing the string to the side or just kind of nudging it down slightly. Now as you can hear, it's not necessarily a really, really bad sound but as soon as I get that string down all the way, well, I hope you can hear the difference. Suddenly not only does it get a little bit bigger but the sound gets richer. So that's something you want to be careful of. So I know when I'm practicing myself, sometimes I like to check this. I'll play a certain passage, just Pizzicato first and then I'll make sure that when I play it with a bow that I'm getting the same feeling in the left hand.

Now, of course, getting the string down, you want be doing this from above, you don't want to have any sort of pressure back here from the thumb. You just want a ... right on top of it and this thumb, you can see I'm kind of wiggling it up there and should be very, very free. Okay. So now with that out of the way we can talk about a little bit about the bow. Now the bow has, obviously, a lot of different things that we have to worry about such as even how we hold the bow and things like this. I won't get too much into bow hold. There's so many different competing ideas on this, I'll just kind of talk about what I think are some of the basics that need to be in a bow hold.

First of all, bow hold needs to be flexible, I know I covered all this in my bow video, but just go over quickly again here. The bow hold needs to be flexible in terms of your fingers and your wrists, things can't be locked up, this is really going to hinder your ability to make a very, very beautiful tone. You need to make sure that you're applying pressure in the right way, not from squeezing the bow but from changing the arc. So that as you approach, like for example if you're on the D string, as you approach the A string, or as you approach the tip, you get closer to the A string that way, and then you come back that way. So that you're always bowing on a little bit of the north. That will help your tone tremendously.

The other thing actually has to do with keeping the bow straight. Now, the bow does need to be straight, no doubt about it. And when I say straight, I, obviously, mean straight across the string. But there's a little bit of difference you can make here if you actually don't keep exactly a straight bow. If you keep a bow that is just a tiny, tiny bit crooked, angled in this direction, then that bow will kind of drift towards the bridge, and it will reach a spot where it will kind of have an equilibrium. Now this trick is very useful, for example, in the beginning of the Dvorak cello concerto, where you want a really, really big sound. You can hear that bow, you stay right close to the bridge, and get a lot of power that way, just by making that angle change. And then, really, you have effortless power. Now, you don't have to worry so much on the up bow because the up bow, you know, we tend to have plenty of power on the up bows, anyway. It's always on down bows that's the issue.

So in terms of your overall sound and tone, those two things, where I've talked about before, and with the changing of the ... you know, getting kind of higher as you get to the tip, and also making sure that you're doing a little bit of that angle change. Now you can do too much and you can slide right off the bridge like that. So you don't want to do too much, you want to do just enough so that that bow starts to kind of drift a little bit towards the bridge. You don't want to do anymore than what you need. Now the next thing with the tone has to do with, I think, the bravado actually. Definitely the right hand I think is the most important thing with what we've talked about with the left hand in terms of getting that string all the way. But the bravado is something that needs some attention, too.

The bravado should be I think for a very, very good basic tone, the bravado on a cello should be relatively wide. Now, this is a question of taste as far as I'm concerned. I take my ideas on bravado really from opera singers and when you hear a great opera singer in a really big hall, what they're able to do, especially when they're singing really, really loud, is they make that bravado really, really, really wide. So that the sound kind of goes like this down the hall. It's not really particularly narrow and focused like that, but it's really, really, really wide. So that's what we want when we have ... and then we're going for a really, really nice tone. For example, like in the second movement Brahms' second symphony, the big cello moment there.

There, if we play that with a bravado that's too narrow and too fast, then it really changes the tone completely. It makes the sound almost pinched instead of really nice and big, a sound that's really just kind of doing this, instead of doing that. So that's something I think we should think about in terms of tone as well. Now, tone is a very, very particular thing and I know some of you may not like some of my ideas, but really when you think about, at least what I consider to be the really great cellist, the one thing that they all have in common is that distinctive sound. Now, I say distinctive but there's commonality between them as well. For example, Feuermann had that very ,very focused sound but also his bravado could be very limpid. The great cellist, Emmanuel Feuermann.

Rostropovich's sound was enormous and, at times, it could be even almost kind of raw and untamed, and the bravado was so wide that, really, he could just fill a concert hall just like an opera singer could. And then there was, of course, the great American cellist Leonard Rose, the teacher of Yo-Yo Ma and of Lynn Harrell, who had, really, a golden sound and there was always so much beauty, but also a lot of size in the sound. And there's a ton of other cellists I can think of, too, that all have this kind of common quality. What makes them distinctive is, of course, how they use these different techniques.

But, really, what I want you to do is, is I want you to think seriously, very seriously, about your sound, how you create sound. We all focus on very important matters like intonation and the correct bow hold and the correct posture and all these things. But I think we could all focus a lot more on just the sheer quality of our sound. And is it a sound that is something that would be appealing and interesting for someone else to really listen to? Is it an attractive sound? This, I think, is what the cellist, especially amongst all the instruments, needs to be thinking about very seriously and very deeply.

I hope you leave your comments down below, I hope that we have a really fun conversation about this. I'd also love to hear if there is a particular cellist that you think of, either who's alive now or somebody from the past. And if there is somebody I've never heard of, please tell me, I'd love to know who they are and listen to their sounds. I really find it interesting to study a wide variety of different sounds from all sorts of different cellists. And also to figure out what they all have in common. So anyway, thank you. I hope you enjoyed this video and again please leave your comments down below. Once again, this has been Joseph Mendoes for
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User Comments and Questions

Comments, Questions, Requests:

Diana Matlashevsky on February 9, 2019 @3:42 pm PST
Hi Joseph. I've been playing for about four months and I'm having some serious doubts all of a sudden with my playing. I have a Krutz 100. Is it a good intermediate cello or what? Idk it sounds so bad to me. Or maybe it's my technique. I'm self taught. It sounds so scratchy and loud and irritating to the ear. Is it my bow? I use professional grade rosin...I'd like some help if you could :(
Paul H on December 2, 2018 @1:53 pm PST
Hi Joseph, just discovered your page.thanks a lot!im currently studying Duport's study # 7 in g.
And have been looking for ideas about the bowed arpegios.the"best",(just my opinion) is Steaurt Pimcombe's version: he brings our the base-line e and has a beatiful flowing arpeggio. Id appreciate your advice!! Thanks again
Joseph - host, on December 5, 2018 @6:36 am PST
Hi Paul,

While I must admit I never learned this etude, I think that the problems in it will be associated with not getting the bow all the way to the levels of the high string and the low string. When we do these kind of fast arpeggios over multiple strings (such as in the Dvorak Cello Concerto) we normally try to minimize our motion, with the consequence being lack of clarity on the top and the bottom of the arpeggio. But when we go a little further with the bow, getting to a little higher level on the A string (so that we are further away from the D string) and a little lower on the G or the C string (so that, if we are on the G string then we are further from the D string,or, if on the C string, we are far from the G string) then this usually helps our clarity, and not coincidentally, with our coordination. I watched Mr. Pincombe play this, and it seems that that is precisely what he is doing to achieve the level of clarity that you admire in his bass notes.

I hope that was clear,

Robert W. Francis * VSM MEMBER * on August 29, 2017 @11:46 am PST
Your statements on producing a good tone and sound quality are particularly moving to me, since they are continuously stressed by my cello teacher. But, I find them not always easy to incorporate in my daily practice.
moonbutt74 on August 21, 2017 @6:17 pm PST
Mr. Mendoes,

I just wanted to thank you for all of your lessons. I am on week 3 of my adventure with the cello. Do you have any advice on finger 1 vibrato in first position? I am learning The Swan and having difficulty with wrist-locking. To be fair I only started getting vibrato a few days ago. Thanks again ! =)

An additional question, is The Swan a waltz? I can hear it some times.
Joseph - host, on August 23, 2017 @3:15 pm PST
Congrats on three weeks! It is a wonderful instrument, isn't it?

For your first finger first position vibrato, try moving your elbow a little higher and a little back. Sometimes if the elbow is a little too low and a little too forward there isn't enough room for all the joints to unlock, which restricts the vibrato. Hopefully that helps!

As far as I can tell The Swan is not a waltz, however that is not such a bad image to have in your head while you play it, as the waltz is a very graceful dance!
moonbutt74 on August 24, 2017 @11:37 am PST
Mr. Mendoes,

Thank you again ! That does the trick, I didn't realize how physically demanding the cello can be with respect to posture.

On The Swan, playing it at double speed/time sans vibrato, it does sound waltzy ! =)

Thanks again.
Edward Smith * VSM MEMBER * on April 26, 2017 @8:59 am PST
Excellent video, a real keeper
Mary Jane Card on April 22, 2017 @8:54 am PST
Thank you for all your kind help. I produce a horrible crunch sound at the point of the change from both up and down bow. It's brief but horrible. Any hints?
Joseph - host, on April 22, 2017 @9:45 pm PST
Yes! The problem is because your fingers are not moving at the bow change. This is why cellists who have mastered the "paintbrush" bow technique always have a beautiful sound with no crunch at the changes. Please take a look at my video on the bow for more tips!

Happy practicing!
Abby on October 12, 2016 @9:33 am PST
Hi, thanks for the video it helped out a lot. I play the cello but when I play the sheet music it takes me time to play it. For example when we start playing in the orchestra it becomes to fast and I can't transition that fast. How do you scan so fastly and one glance at it and you know what you're gonna play? Please help Thanks.
M peters on August 2, 2016 @3:41 pm PST
Firstly, thank you for your informative video clips! I am a beginning adult student an am still struggling to make a beautiful sound when it is not on an open string. I feel as though I'm making full contact with the fingerboard but it still doesn't sound as nice as when I play on an open string. Any thoughts? Thank you!
Natalia on December 5, 2015 @11:46 am PST
Thank you for your video!
I study in Moscow Conservatory,want to share with you my video!Can you say something about my sound and vibrato?Because now I'm in searching something comfortable for my clamped hands.Hope you can say some words about my cello.Thank you!
Joseph - host, on December 24, 2015 @6:44 pm PST
Hello Natalia,

First of all, I apologize for the delay, it has been a busy season!
Thank you very much for sending me that lovely clip of your playing, I enjoyed it! I am not familiar with the piece, what is it?

Technically speaking you have a very good foundation, but it seems you struggle a little with shifts between 3rd and 7th position. This looks like it is due to a low elbow. When you shift to a higher position from 3rd or 4th position, I notice your left elbow suddenly goes up in order to clear the upper right bout of the cello. Try setting your left elbow high enough before ascending shifts (really you should have it higher all the time!) so that your elbow does not have to raise so much in order to clear the bout. This significantly lowers the overall amount of motion in the shift and allows you to stop your finger more easily on the right pitch. Try it and tell me if it helped!


Natalia on December 25, 2015 @1:31 pm PST
Hi,Joseph!Thanks for your comments! It's a Scene from ballet The Fountain of Bakhchisarai by Asafiev. I've watched all your videos,found many interesting details,including my problem with low elbow.I'm trying to fix it ,but now I have another problem:my left shoulder clamps if I start to vibrate.I try to to control this,but it doesn't help....
Emma * VSM MEMBER * on March 2, 2015 @5:40 pm PST
Thank you so much! I really enjoyed this informed lesson. It has given this new cellist much to think about. Which piece is played at the close of this video, and who is playing?

Joseph - host, on March 4, 2015 @10:00 am PST
Hello Emma,

Thank you for watching! The piece at the end of the video is from the Prelude to the Fifth Cello Suite by J.S. Bach, and I am the one playing. It is a recording I made several years ago. Hope you enjoyed it!

Emma * VSM MEMBER * on March 4, 2015 @5:48 pm PST
Thank you Joseph. It is a beautiful interpretation. I picked up the cello in November last year with the aim of playing Bach one day. So far with Suzuki I have learned at least 4 Minuets!! Haha! Your videos are very informative and I enjoy watching. Thank you again
Joseph - host, on March 4, 2015 @10:00 am PST
Hello Emma,

Thank you for watching! The piece at the end of the video is from the Prelude to the Fifth Cello Suite by J.S. Bach, and I am the one playing. It is a recording I made several years ago. Hope you enjoyed it!

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